11/03/2015 12:28 pm ET Updated Nov 02, 2016

When Smartphones Hurt

A recent local news story caught my attention.(1) It was both tragic but also had a comical element to it. A local woman was arrested for throwing her cell phone at her husband during a heated argument. The problem, however, was that she missed her intended target and struck her five-year-old son in the head causing a laceration. The boy's mother, at the time of the story, was still in jail not having the scratch to cough up the $3,000.00 bond. The good news is that the boy appears to have recovered, but may have trouble bonding with his smartphone (unlike the rest of us) when the day comes for him to join the digital age. Although this is an example of the physical harm that can be caused by a misused smartphone, I want to briefly discuss a much more common outcome of smartphone misuse: Failing Relationships.

Americans have never been very good at marriage. Approximately 40 percent of all marriages will end in divorce. Additionally, intact marriages aren't doing too well either - the majority of which are characterized by low levels of relationship satisfaction on the part of one or both partners.(2)

Not that cell phones and other technologies are the only culprits in our dismal relationship record, but research suggests that in many instances they are not helping. Distractions of any sort, regardless of their cause, can undermine the formation of healthy relationships. Technoference is the term given to the inevitable intrusions and interruptions caused by technology when we are trying to interact or spend time with our romantic partner.(3)

With the ever-increasing presence and use of cell phones, the boundaries that separate other interests and partner relationships have become increasingly "blurred". Currently, there is no style guide on technology etiquette (not until chapter eight of my new book) and couples are left to navigate these stormy and somewhat murky waters on their own.

So, how well are you and your significant other navigating these often-times turbulent waters? If you're like the rest of us, to one degree or another your smartphone usage has caused problems in your relationship. We all want our romantic partners to be fully present when we are together. This, however, has become increasingly difficult with our ever present and highly intrusive smartphone always nearby. Earlier research by Baylor colleague Meredith David and I found partner phubbing (phone snubbing) creates cell phone conflict that, in turn, undermines satisfaction with our romantic partner. (4)

Now it's time to lay your cards on the table - to come clean about how your smartphone use may be negatively affecting your most important relationship. I have included a ten question cell phone conflict scale for you to complete.(5) The scale measures how much conflict (havoc) your cell phone wreaks in your relationship with your romantic partner. Simply choose how often you have experienced the feelings or performed the behaviors described below.

Cell Phone Conflict Scale

This set of questions asks about your partner's cell phone use. Simply write down on a separate piece of paper the number that reflects how often you have experienced the feelings or performed the behaviors described below. Use this Scale: 1 = Never, 2 = Rarely, 3 = Sometimes, 4 = Often, 5 = All of the time.

1. I have explicitly told my partner about how his/her cell phone use irritates me.
2. I have talked with my partner about how his/her cell phone use bothers me.
3. My partner and I argue over his/her cell phone use.
4. My partner and I cannot agree on when we should use or not use our cell phones .
5. My partner uses his/her cell phone so much when we are together that I often have
to ask him/her to put it away.
6. My partner's use of his/her cell phone when we are together really irritates me.
7. Although my partner's cell phone use irritates me, I usually ignore it.
8. I have given up trying to get my partner to not interrupt me by using his/her
cell phone when I am talking.
9. I have checked my partner's cell phone messages without him/her knowing it.
10. I am sometimes suspicious of my partner's cell phone use.

Is technoference affecting your relationship? To calculate your score, simply add up your responses to each of the ten statements and check how you did below.

If You Scored...


A technology intervention is needed immediately. If you see me drive up to your house, it's too late.


Problems are a brewing but there's still time for redemption. Look for ways to step back from your cell phone. I discuss something called Smartphone Smack Down in chapter ten of my book that should help you find your digital sweet spot (


Not bad. It appears that you have reached some type of understanding with your partner in regards to cell phone use when the two of you are together.


As a couple, you clearly have a handle on your mutual cell phone use. This is important because it is conflict, not time on one's cell phone that is responsible for its negative impact on relationships.

1. "Mother jailed after accidently injuring 5-year-old son", Waco Tribune Herald, October 15th, 2015.
2. Ahlstrom, et al. (2012), "Me, my spouse, and my avatar", Journal of Leisure Research, 44 (1), 1-22.
3. McDaniel and Coyne (2014), Technoference: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women's personal and relational well-being", Psychology of Popular Media Culture.
4. Roberts and David (2015), "My life has become a major distraction from my cell phone: partner phubbing and relationship satisfaction among romantic partners," Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 134-141.
5. The first two items of the cell phone conflict scale were modified from Theiss and Solomon's (2006) Directedness of Communication Scale.